Our Opinion: Vermont needs to get the lead out

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There is no safe blood lead level for children.

That's what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics have to say about childhood exposure to lead, a metal previously used as an additive in paint and gasoline and in the solder that connects older water pipes.

Their concern is well-founded. Even small amounts of lead can cause permanent mental and physical developmental damage in children.

So why would we ever tolerate lead in drinking water in our schools?

And why should we not test for it immediately, and make sure no child is exposed to a poison that permanently affects their cognitive development?

After a pilot program found elevated levels of lead in water at five Vermont schools last year, state officials are planning for testing at all public schools by 2022.

But lawmakers including Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, and Senate President pro tempore Tim Ashe, are calling for testing and remediation of lead issues at all schools over the coming year. They're calling for both testing and any needed remediation work to be funded at least partially by the state.

Vermont already has a health advisory level of 1 part per billion, which is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for school water sources.

Campion wants that to become the level at which action is required. We agree, and hope our delegation will join Campion in pushing for that standard, not by 2022, but now.

Everything we now know about childhood exposure to lead tells us the current federal and state standard of 15 parts per billion in drinking water is woefully inadequate. And we also know that lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, which makes active prevention that much more important.

In 2012, two significant scientific findings rendered that standard functionally obsolete:

- The U.S. National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health reported that, after other risk factors are accounted for, blood lead concentrations lower than 5 micrograms per deciliter (50 parts per billion) "are strongly associated with intellectual deficits, diminished academic abilities, attention deficits, and problem behaviors."

- The CDC's committee on childhood lead poisoning prevention determined that there is no safe level of lead exposure. It set 5 micrograms per deciliter as the blood lead concentration above which doctors and public health officials should intervene.

The AAP calls lead "a causal risk factor for diminished intellectual and academic abilities, higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders such as hyperactivity and attention deficits, and lower birth weight in children." And there's no effective treatment that addresses its permanent developmental effects.

We can look back now and realize with 20/20 hindsight that it was foolish to allow the use of lead as an additive in gasoline and paint. We're stuck with that legacy now; while lead was banned as a paint additive in 1978, 70 percent of the state's housing stock was built before then.

But now that we know better, there's no excuse for failing to act.

Fixing this won't be easy and it won't be cheap. But there's no acceptable alternative.

We must make sure the water that serves Vermont's schools is lead-free; and if it's not, we must eliminate it.

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